Michigan crushes UF to reach Atlanta
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shortly after he descended from the ladder -- a freshly snipped piece of the Cowboys Stadium net affixed to his commemorative Final Four cap -- point guard Trey Burke snaked through a gaggle of Michigan teammates and fans until he found John Beilein.
As the player and coach embraced during the crowning moment of their respective careers, Burke whispered into Beilein's ear.
Perhaps he said, "I told you so."
Long before Burke earned his tag as the best player in college basketball, the sophomore who can seemingly do no wrong was summoned into Beilein's office. It was summertime in Ann Arbor, just a few weeks before the start of classes, and Beilein was irked by some comments he'd read from Burke in a preseason publication.
"He got on me a little bit," Burke said, "because I said I felt like we could be national championship contenders. But it was coming from my heart. It was coming from watching this team every single day and seeing the talent. I knew that once we mixed talent with the toughness and execution and intelligent play, we could be something special.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Wolverines showed the depth of their talent against the Gators.
"I knew we'd have a chance to win a title."
Burke's comments seemed far-fetched at the time. They don't anymore.
Michigan is headed to its first Final Four in 20 years following Sunday's 79-59 annihilation of Florida. Burke scored 15 points and dished out seven assists, and Nik Stauskas added 22 points for a squad that starts three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. All of a sudden the Wolverines, who were just 6-6 in the dozen games leading up to the tourney, look like the team everyone saw back in early February.
The one that was ranked No. 1 in America.
"You have to go through some adversity to get to success," Burke said. "A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people said we were too young, too soft, not tough enough. We used that as motivation. We made sure we played with a chip on our shoulders over the last two or three weeks."
There is certainly no reason to question Michigan now. There is no reason to doubt freshman forward Mitch McGary, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Kevin Love-clone who is averaging 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds in his first NCAA tournament.
There is no reason to second-guess Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III or Jon Horford, the sons of former NBA players who combine to average 28.6 points. All three fathers beamed with pride as they made their way onto the court to join the postgame celebration with their sons.
"We're just getting started!" Tim Hardaway Sr. screamed as he high-fived a friend.
No one can question the gumption of Burke, the Big Ten Player of the Year and Wooden Award candidate whose 30-foot 3-pointer forced overtime in Friday's Sweet 16 win over Kansas. Burke -- the 84th-ranked player in ESPN.com's Class of 2011 -- was headed to Penn State before Michigan swooped in and offered him a scholarship two years ago.
And after Sunday, it'd be foolish to undervalue the Canadian-born Stauskas, who said he took 1,000 shots per day as a youngster growing up in Ontario, often spending an hour shoveling snow from his driveway just so he could shoot. A longtime fan of former Davidson sharpshooter Steph Curry, Stauskas hit five straight 3-pointers from the left corner Sunday en route to a 19-point first-half effort.
"I told my dad last night that I was going to go off today," Stauskas said. "I knew it was coming. I was due. It's crazy how many open looks I was getting."
Staukas' hot shooting helped Michigan open up a 23-5 lead on Florida. The cushion eventually swelled to 41-17 -- and it wasn't even halftime yet. The SEC champion Gators certainly looked out of sorts, but it'd be flat-out wrong to say the lopsided score came solely because Florida played poorly.
Michigan, mainly because of its talent, is simply that much better than the Gators. These were two teams on completely different levels. No. 4 seed Michigan was seeded lower than No. 3 Florida, but that's only because the Wolverines dropped some games in what was easily the best conference this season, the Big Ten.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Tony GutierrezFreshman Mitch McGary was a star in Michigan's win over Florida.
A day before the game, UF coach Billy Donovan said the Wolverines were "the best offensive team in the country."
So dominant was Michigan on Sunday that it was able to sub in its walk-ons with nearly two minutes remaining, when it led by 22 points. How often do you see that in an Elite Eight game, especially one against an experienced Florida squad that has been to the regional final the past two seasons?
A wild celebration ensued as the final horn sounded, with players scurrying about the court before climbing atop a makeshift stage to accept their regional championship trophy. Not since the days of the Fab Five had Michigan been in this type of limelight. Burke was 16 months old when the Wolverines last made the Final Four.
When it came time to snip away at the nets, the players made sure to let Beilein go last. Long known as one of college basketball's top game tacticians, Beilein guided West Virginia to the Elite Eight in 2005. But he'd never gotten Michigan past the tournament's opening weekend since taking over the struggling program in 2007.
"I didn't know how to act," Beilein said. "I was just silent, in awe, trying to take everything in."
The Wolverines returned to their locker room and could be heard singing their "Hail to the Victors" fight song throughout the bowels of Cowboys Stadium. When the doors finally opened, an onslaught of media trudged over sopping wet carpet as they moved from player to player.
Turns out McGary and Hardaway Jr. had dumped a cooler full of fruit punch-flavored Gatorade over Beilein's head seconds after the team's postgame prayer.
"We asked Mrs. Beilein first," McGary said. "She said it was OK. He was shocked. He didn't know what to do. Hopefully, he doesn't run us."
Beilein is too smart for that. He realizes the Wolverines will need every ounce of energy for what lies ahead in Saturday's NCAA semifinal against Syracuse in Atlanta.
"We're playing our best at just the right time," Burke said. "This is a special team."
Of course, Burke knew that before the season.
Now the rest of the world does, too.
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